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A Day in the Life of a Royal Danish Ballet Dancer

by Kate Snedeker

For many people the life of a ballet dancer remains somewhat of a mystery; a distant world of rehearsal studios and classes. Though so little understood by most ballet-goers, this offstage existence makes up most of a dancer’s life, as performances are but a small fraction of the hours a dancer puts in each week. Following is a brief background on the Royal Danish Ballet and a glimpse into its dancers' world when they are not on stage.

The Company

Currently, there are approximately 90 dancers in the Royal Danish Ballet, including 7 apprentices from the School of the Royal Danish Ballet and 12 character dancers. About three quarters of the dancers are Danish, with the other nationalities represented including Sweden , Poland (3), France (2), Great Britain (5), United States (3), New Zealand (2), Russia (2), Hungary , Canada , Mexico , Australia and Belgium .
All of the Danish dancers were trained at the School of the Royal Danish Ballet, though a few like Kenneth Greve and Julien Ringdahl, spent time at other ballet schools and danced with other companies prior to returning to Denmark . Most started at the RDB School between the ages of 7 and 11, training for up to ten years before starting a two or three year apprenticeship at the age of 16.

Increasingly, however, dancers are entering the company from other ballet schools and companies. Christopher Rickert, an Australian who trained in New Zealand , came to the attention of artistic director Frank Andersen at the 2003 New York International Ballet Competition, and he successfully auditioned for the company in February 2004. Americans Amy Watson, Ellen Green and Meaghan Spedden all came via the School of American Ballet , having been exposed to the RDB either during summer exchanges between the two ballet schools and/or through former RDB dancers now dancing or teaching at the New York City Ballet. Principals Martin James, Jean-Lucien Massot and Marie-Pierre Greve all came to RDB after successful careers with other companies.

The character dancers are a vital part of the Royal Danish Ballet. Most transitioned from the dancing ranks when they turned 40, the age at which Danish dancers start receiving a pension, though some have returned after time teaching or dancing elsewhere. These dancers take on the numerous non-dancing roles that are vital in much of the repertory, especially the Bournonville ballets.
By maintaining the character dancer ranks, the company retains older dancers who not only have the experience and time to nurture the character roles, but also provide an important link with the past, keeping alive the character roles and teaching them to the younger dancers. Many of the character dancers also teach in the school, help coach and/or stage ballets.

The company offices and studios are on the fourth and fifth floors of the extensive Royal Theater complex. Both the company and school share the studios, with most school classes taking place early in the morning before the company day begins. Gamle Scene (Old Stage) down on the 1st floor, where most dance performances take place, is also the main stage for the opera and other musical concerts.

The Dancer’s Day

A normal week runs Monday through Saturday, though every year there are several Sunday matinee performances. Each day begins at 10am with an hour and half company class, which serves as a chance for dancers to slowly warm up their muscles and work on their ballet technique. Usually, the men and women are divided into their own classes, both to allow for focus on specifics of male or female technique and also to allow the dancers more space in the studio.

Company class is often taught by someone from within the company, but may also be taught by a guest teacher. Every class begins with barre work, with the same basics familiar to ballet students of all levels. Though each teacher has their own style and preferred step sequences, the same basic steps are always there, for instance plie, tendu, developpe, ronde de jambe etc. After about 45 minutes, the barres are pushed aside to allow for center work. Much like the barre work, center work begins relatively simply and builds up to the more complicated, often ending with short excerpts from Bournonville or other ballets. While almost all the women do center in pointe shoes, many choose to use soft ballet slippers for the barre.

After class, rehearsals and other performance related activities fill the rest of the dancers’ day. The company makes use of five rehearsal studios, as well as running stage rehearsals on Gamle Scene. Up to four ballets may be rehearsed at any one time, with multiple casts for each, and rehearsals may occur simultaneously in 2-4 studios with groups ranging from one dancer to almost the entire company. Thus, scheduling of rehearsals is a complicated and never-ending task, with changes occurring frequently.

Rehearsals begin at noon and may last until anywhere from 3:30 to 6:15pm , depending on the needs of the performance schedule. Each rehearsal can be as short as half an hour for something like last-minute coaching on a new role, or as long as three hours (with break) for a full run through of and corrections on a new ballet. When full makeup and costumes are required, it means an even earlier start. The schedule varies each day, and is usually different for each dancer in the company.

Rehearsals come in many shapes and sizes. In the rehearsal studios, new choreography may be created and old choreography taught to new dancers or refreshed in the minds of more experienced dancers. Corps members and apprentices often watch, even if they have not been cast in a certain ballet, as they may be expected to fill in if injuries or illness deplete the ranks.

Each ballet is given a dress rehearsal to allow for checks of staging, sets, costumes and music. However, since the company shares the stage with the opera and concerts, rehearsals may occur well before an actual performance, and every cast may not get a full run through. Preparations for a new ballet may entail long rehearsals, often repeating a certain scene or section multiple times in order to fine tune staging, cues, spacing, choreography, scene and prop changes, as well as coordination with the conductor and orchestra. Ballets already in the repertory are given a touching up before each performance run, requiring less intensive time on the stage unless there are major role debuts.

Beyond Rehearsals
Rehearsals are not the only thing happening in studios during the day. A Bournonville class, often taught by principal dancer Thomas Lund, is given each day for apprentices, new non-Danish company members and other selected dancers. And though they also take company class, the apprentices have their own class each afternoon. Also, with preparations for the 2005 Bournonville Festival underway, filming for the Bournonville Class DVDs may occupy a studio. A few school classes also take place later in the day, usually gymnastics for the boys or a second daily class for students in the advanced levels.

Besides rehearsals and classes, dancers also have costume fittings, photo shoots, physiotherapy sessions, the occasional interview, and the never-ending job of washing dance clothes and preparing new shoes. Danish stores close by 6pm during the week, 2pm on Saturdays and are closed all day on Sundays, so free time between rehearsals may be the only time to get errands done. Several dancers also teach in ballet school classes and/or help to stage and coach ballets in the repertory.

The company performs late August through May, usually 2 or 3 times per week. During that time the company may also be on tour, where the schedule must accommodate the demands of different facilities and stages.

Non-performing nights give the dancers a chance to rest and catch up with friends, family and errands. For performance nights, dancers must get an early meal and be back for makeup, costumes and warm-up before the 8pm performance (or later if they are not dancing in an earlier act). Corps members usually dance in every performance, though principals may perform only once or not at all in any given week.

Sample schedule

10am -11:30 am: company class in main studio

12: 05 – 2:00 pm : rehearsal for new ballet in main studio

2: 20 – 3:50 pm : rehearsal for part in existing ballet in another studio

4: 15 – 5:45pm : Bournonville class

Edited by Holly Messitt

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